19 August 2010

Five Point Reductionism- Part 2, Method and the danger of Meta-system

In the end, the Five Points express truth but are a wholly insufficient and lopsided expression of it. I've always marveled at Calvinism's insistence in employing these points as an expression of their system, or even worse as a starting point. The Five Points resulted from the work of the Synod of Dordt in the early 17th century. The Arminian party put forward the Five Points of Arminianism, I summarize:



Partial Depravity

Conditional Election

Universal Atonement

Resistable Grace

Conditional Salvation



And the Calvinists responded with their Five Points...



Total Depravity

Unconditional Election

Limited Atonement

Irresistable Grace

Perseverance of the Saints.



So the Calvinistic points are just responses to another faction's argument. Calvinists then take the Five Points and teach them as a bedrock to their system. Again, while true, how can we think we can reduce the faith to five doctrines? Why would we want to? On one level we could say the bedrock or foundation is one point....Christ Jesus. On another level we would need to insist on a hundred points.


Perhaps these types of theological models and jingoisms aren't helpful at all. The Scriptures don't present the truth to us in these types of arrangements. The Scriptures reveal Christ to us historically...the History of Salvation from Genesis 3.15 to His manifestation in a stable in Bethlehem. The theology of the New Testament is grounded in this History and interplays between the eternal/decretal revelation of God and the temporal application of it here on earth.

We must have theology. Our practice is blind without it. All questions are in the end theological. We cannot ignore doctrine. God reveals Himself to us in His Word. For it to have meaning the words themselves must be looked at and analyzed. We must study it, meditate on it, absorb it and wrestle with it...so that we might know Him. That is what drives our doctrinal study. Not to find 'the' system. Not even to answer our opponents, but that we might Know God. This is the Christian life and walk, not so I didn't have to go to hell or so that I could have my best life now. No, what this is all about is knowing our God. Does building a system outside or beyond the text help us in this? It helps us to arrange our ideas, but I hope you see it can be abused very quickly. Is the Word a legal text, an instruction manual, a schematic? Or is it a revelation of God through the person of Jesus the Christ?

It is primarily a revelation of Christ. That doesn't mean we're anti-system, anti-theology, but it does seem to suggest a different way of looking at the Bible and thus how we should think about systems and tradition.

His Word is wondrous. Let's be careful we don't explain it away through these meta-systems, constructed beyond the text, or our perverted and minuscule concepts of justice or fairness, or even hallowed tradition. We need to submit to the message. Let's learn from the past. I want to emphasize again, we're arrogant and foolish if we think we can't learn anything from the history of the Church, even during the times of apostasy. Men have been giving themselves to these things for centuries. Did they get it all correct? Of course not. We're not either. We don't need to revere these men or follow them blindly, but we're blind if we think we can't learn from the questions they have wrestled with. Sometimes we can learn what questions we shouldn't ask. We see the Scriptures interplaying in other cultural contexts, then teaching us something of our own.

Am I Calvinist? Yes and no.

What about the pre-Reformation movements? No surprise, we find a variety. All of them revered the Scriptures, translated them, memorized them, studied them and therefore wrestled with these same issues.

Wycliffe, Hus, the Lollards, Claude of Turin, and some of the Waldensians were definitely Augustinian...meaning they emphasized Divine Grace, God's prerogative saving the sinner dead in his sins. They understood salvation is not of man's doing, and they believed God sovereignly exercised His will throughout history. This eternal will transcends our notions of time. His decree (not decrees) was established before the foundation of the world.

And yet there is also evidence the Waldensians (at least the famed group in the Cottian Alps) held onto the doctrine of Free Will. In the 1530's at Chanforan, the Calvinist Reformer Gilliaume Farel convinced them to abandon this position.

Calvinists believe men have Free Will...but they believe the Will is in bondage to sin, so that spiritually dead, the will always chooses sin (death). We're dead in trespasses and sins. Man is still free to choose to follow God, but cannot because sin has corrupted Him. Only the Holy Spirit can free him from this.

This is Scriptural. But it is also Scriptural to say, man is exhorted to choose and apparently has the power in some sense to do so. On one level he cannot choose the good, and if he could, we would not need a Messiah, but on another level, the Scriptures speak in terms of our personal choice. Calvinists argue man is regenerated and this change of heart liberates the will and then man exercises his will in conversion by repenting and believing. Logically sound, but the Scriptures don't present such a technical formula, nor is the issue presented in this way.

So we're back to method. How do we interpret the Scriptures? Is it legitimate to take what we know from certain texts and deduce and develop an explanation that meets the criteria of Aristotelian logic? Calvinist systematicians would say absolutely, or else we have texts that appear contradictory. They must be synthesized, ironed out. We have texts that suggest freewill, and since we know salvation is not a result of freewill, therefore those verses must say something else. This is the genesis of a meta-system...beyond the text, the system takes on a life of its own. We have to systematize to some degree. It's unavoidable, but we ought to have this in mind and consciously avoid what I'm calling a meta-system, one constructed beyond the confines of the text, developing concepts that aren't rooted in the text but in systemic necessity. These secondary concepts begin to interact with other secondary concepts generating new questions, new categories, and soon the text is far off in the distance.

Visualize a piece of graph paper. It's symmetrical and systemic, each line and intersect dependent upon the next. Now take an eraser or white out and remove a swath right through the middle leaving only white space. Naturally your eye (your perception) wants to visualize the missing lines and intersects. Your senses discern the patterns on the rest of the page and even when it's not there, you wish to see it ,and so whether you want to or not you visualize the completed grid.

Some would say, this is a perfect illustration to show why systematic theology is valid and the preferred method. As long we safely and consistently connect those dots and draws those lines (so to speak) we're safe. But are we? Perhaps the white areas aren't meant to be developed? Perhaps it's not symmetrical? We just don't know. What if the graph/grid is more complicated than we realize.

Others appeal to the very nature of God, his order, his teleological nature, some would say. This logic, the mathematical consistency is not something merely part of nature (the creation), but part of His character (the Creator)....

I understand this sentiment but I still question it. At that point how can Paul extol the incomprehensibility of God in Romans 11? How can His ways not be our ways, and His thoughts not be our thoughts in Isaiah 55? If God is Logic as one famed theologian seemed to think, we can probe eternity with confidence. We just need to develop the right syllogisms, construct the right grid that helps us to come to the right deductions and truly we can understand all. This staggers me. It seems such a God is not at all incomprehensible but very finite and limited, and the presumption on the part of man, I find stunning.

Some of this school would argue what seems to us contradictory is not really so, but simply a matter of our abilities being insufficient, that is to say our mental capacities can't grasp the totality of the data and construct the tools to help us disect it. So I have to ask....pre-fall Adam could comprehend the Trinity? He had the ability to place the Trinity or the Incarnation into form logical categories that would have made sense? Can the most sublime and majestic aspects of Divinity be explained through verbal mathematics (logic)?

Is this the God of Scripture?

Elsewhere I've argued the laws of logic find their place in creation, they are part of the created order. I will happily admit this order to some extent, reflects the glory of God, His power and character, but are not part of his Essence. I think employing logic in this way is another form of reductionism.

So what of this dichotomy between freewill and predestination?

I would say Christian maturity and humility causes the Christian to look back and see that he would not have chosen God had He not been seeking him. So in one sense, it is all the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit changing an enemy heart (that would be ours) in defiance of the enemy's will.

In another sense, it's an individual willingly choosing to forsake sin and call upon God for forgiveness.

Is the one merely apparent in light of the other. An illusion? If the Holy Spirit does the work, is our freewill just our perception, not reality? Aristotelian logic built on the doctrine of election demands such a verdict, but the Scriptures present the choice of man as very real and though I cannot work out the mechanics of it, I will by faith accept what the Scriptures say.

Owen famously said (I paraphrase)...to suppose man is able to obey the commands of God is to make the cross of no effect. Logically that is true. The Arminian says it's not reasonable or fair for God to demand something of us that we cannot do. It would be insincere. There is a logic to that as well, a weaker form not taking into account the full effect of sin. I argue these questions on both fronts are driven by system commitments. The Arminian starts with the necessity of freewill and builds a grid. The Calvinist starts with election and predestination and builds a grid. The Scriptures teach both, but what if the Scriptures are not placing either of these categories at the center of the grid, or as the foundation of the building? They are both right, and both quite wrong. I argue there have been some, perhaps many Calvinists who argued some of these same points. Spurgeon in his day was called an Arminian by the Calvinists, and a Calvinist by the Arminians. In reality Spurgeon was the Calvinist and most of the Calvinists were in reality what is called hyper-Calvinists.

But what do the Scriptures say? When the text says Choose or Seek is there a footnote we have to read at the bottom of the page, saying it doesn't really mean we choose? Yes, we interpret Scripture with Scripture, but we don't use the rule to negate what another Scripture clearly teaches. Treating words this way, erasing their meaning in light of other texts does exactly this.

We're the Waldensians balanced with the type of two-sidedness I'm arguing for? We don't know. But they were not as simplistic as some may think. There is evidence for fairly in-depth theological discussion and development among them. They're on record for discussing the origin of the soul, whether it was created directly by God or generated by natural means. This famous creationist/traducean debate is not something simple-minded rustic-theologians are going to delve into. They are often presented this way, and it is obviously a false caricature.

Perhaps they rejected Election and emphasized Free Will as Wesley did in the 18th century. Perhaps, but I find it strange they seemed to revere Augustine of Hippo, or at least some of them did. That tells me, there was perhaps more to them than what some have supposed. In reality, I think we would have found a wide spectrum of beliefs and I'm sure they had their internal debates as well. They were not a monolithic organization, not bound by bureaucracy. There were individual teachers (Barbe) and individual cells or congregations. Some have suggested Waldensianisms would be a more accurate term.


Did the Calvinists in the 16th century correct their thinking? Well, they changed it. Undoubtedly in some good ways. The Waldensians on the Franco-Italian frontier had also embraced several erroneous teachings which the Reformers helped to correct, but the Reformers also introduced some unfortunate notions as well. One that immediately comes to mind...they pushed them to start constructing Church buildings. Perhaps a post on that will be in order at some point.

The question of Election is not one of yes and no. The Scriptures are emphatic in their yes. But they say much more as well. It's a yes, and....

Even the word Election is not always used in reference to decretally elect individuals. Sometimes it refers to visible congregations...ones Paul knew contained false converts. Look at Ephesus. Read Ephesians 1 and then look at the meeting with the elders in Acts 20. He warns them of wolves from among them, and yet in Ephesians 1, they are the chosen, predestined before the foundation of the world. Does he mean decretally elect? Yes and no. As with Old Testament Prophecy there are several layers. He said they were sealed with the Holy Spirit. Do we need a footnote again to explain he only meant that in the eschatological sense? No, he said they were sealed, knowing there were some among them who weren't actually sealed in the eternal sense. So because we know the church doesn't get it right 100% of the time should we eschew such verbage and cast it in provisional language as so many do? Does Paul say, you Ephesians, sealed by the Spirit, that is, those of you who really and truly believe are sealed by the Spirit? The Scriptures don't speak that way and we shouldn't be afraid to speak as they do.

The statements in Chapter 1 have to be applied in a sense even to the false converts...a kind of superficial sense. Nevertheless as professing and baptized persons, part of that congregation, they were called elect. And yet in another sense the obvious meaning is for those predestined and foreordained before the foundation of the world.

They are not all Israel who are of Israel. But even those who are not Israel, are still in the some sense, the visible sense...called Israel.
There are multiple layers to all these questions. The truth is clear and in one sense simple, but in another sense incomprehensibly profound. I mentioned prophetic passages. Think of the famous abomination of desolation in Daniel. On one level he's clearly speaking about what happened in the Maccabean and Seleucid period and the Jewish struggle with the Hellenistic Antiochus Epiphanes who sacrificed a pig on the temple altar. On another level the prophecy references the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70. And yet both of these events pre-figure the Apocalypse at the end of the age.

I am leery of any Systematic attempt to order these doctrines into some kind of outline or grid that synthesizes and consequently reduces these multiple layers. And we find these multi-layered concepts in many areas, not just prophecy.

For the philosophically keen, I argue Systematics often unwittingly applies a sort of theological version of Ockham's Razor, which ends in another form of severe reductionism.
Is this really a problem today, these issues I'm talking about. Especially in light of the Emergent Church, Joel Osteen, Liberal Theology, and Roman Catholicism? Aren't they the real threat? Isn't this just splitting theological hairs?

They are very real threats, but among the Bible believers we must be careful that we don't take up the wrong means, the wrong weapons to fight these enemies. Our victory (so to speak) can become self-defeating if we are not careful.

I am reminded of the United States using Afghans as weapons to fight the Soviet Union. It seemed brilliant at the time, but unwittingly the United States was creating a scenario which would later be the cause of much grief.

A time is coming I believe and may already be upon us when the truth will be maintained by a remnant. Will this remnant divide and fight over theological issues? Will this remnant keep employing the same tools that leads us to repeat the same errors over and over again?

Perhaps some will see that what I'm arguing can actually build bridges between camps that have historically been quite opposed. I'm not saying we abandon truth and just get along. I'm saying let's look at the method, reconsider how we go about theology, which will lead us to ask different questions, and then perhaps we can look at some of these issues in a new light.

Actually, I think there a lot of people who have grasped the praxis or application of what I'm saying but perhaps have never thought about the why or the how. They see what the Scriptures say, but don't know what to do with it. I hope these posts can help with that.

The Five Points were glorious to me at one time. I saw these five cardinal truths laid out so clearly. A coherent system, each connected and working together.

It's perhaps unrelated, but the imagery is interesting. If you think of a pentagon, it's a two dimensional figure formed of five sides and five angles. Each point connects and it makes this strong symmetrical shape.



But it's two dimensional.



Later as I continued to read and ponder the Scriptures took on a new depth and I found the Five Points to be quite inadequate. Not untrue, but to restrict my vision to this perspective would only frustrate Scriptural study.

I set aside my system commitments and determined to read the text as it is. Did it become a-systemic, a chaotic mass of contradiction? Hardly.

Suddenly the Pentagon became a dodecahedron...a three dimensional pentagon. The simple five points from one perspective became a complex and intricate network, a simple melody became a symphony.





The pictures aren't helpful to use as actual models. I'm not proposing that, but instead it helps to visualize in one sense the way I'm arguing the Bible presents itself. Don't get hung up on the example. The point is the contrast between two-dimensional thought (which Aristotelian logic limits us to) and three-dimensional thought (given to us by Special Revelation).

Some argue what I'm advocating leads to chaos and mysticism. It can. Some have done that, but you'll find what drives the error is usually introducing a subjective element which competes with Biblical authority. Feelings for example, intuitions, thinking God told them or lead them in one direction....this then becomes its own authority and competes with the text just like any other system or meta-system will.

Sobriety and wisdom,
careful examination,
probing what others have said and seen and above all prayer will guide us.

We don't divorce ourselves from all reason. We don't develop our theology in isolation. We interact with the past.

Will we ever have 100% confidence? I'm not sure that's possible, but I think if we stick to the text with right motive, we can have some assurance and be fairly safe.

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